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Practitioner's viewpoint - September 2020

04 August 2020

There have been many changes in the workplace this summer due to COVID-19, so Louise Ward takes this opportunity to look at how things will change going forward in the 'new-normal'.

WHAT A strange summer it’s been! COVID-19 has shaped everything that we do, and the way in which we do it. But as the countrywide lockdown starts to ease, our minds inevitably turn to the future. Health and safety professionals have played a key role in supporting businesses through the pandemic, and how will things change going forwards?

Will businesses ever return to operating in the way that they did just six months ago? And in fact should they? 

There is increasing discussion about the ‘new normal’ and what that might mean in terms of the way that we work and live our lives, but so much is still uncertain. People are understandably nervous about the future, but we have a unique opportunity to make a significant change to the whole concept of work, which could transform many lives and open up the workplace to a whole range of people who have previously been unable to engage.

I think the biggest challenge is going to be around letting go of the ‘old normal’ in terms of the way that we have previously operated, so that we can embrace innovation. We need to keep the best of the changes that the pandemic forced on us, and build on these to create a whole new way of working for the future, rather than just gradually slipping back into old habits as the government restrictions ease.

It’s amazing just how much innovation can flow from adversity, and we are far more adaptable than we might think! Who’d have thought 6 months ago that we could be operating effectively with around 65% of people working from home? But in those first few weeks our IT colleagues were amazing, rolling out tools and apps to support us and ensure that we could keep businesses moving forwards. We’ve proved that it’s possible, so we now need to retain that focus and carry on innovating each time we come up against a potential issue or a new challenge.

What’s the point of going back to the daily commute and sitting at a desk all day if we’ve proved we don’t need to? Why not retain a more flexible approach? There are benefits for employees in terms of a better work life balance, and for employers in terms of an opportunity to reduce the real estate portfolio and utilise space differently. The office of the future could be a much more relaxed space designed for collaboration, where people come together when they need to – not just out of habit or routine.

Change is never an easy thing to manage, but I think communication is key. It’s really important that people can contribute to the development of new working practices and the innovation of tools and technology. It’s also vital to explain the reasoning behind the decisions that are made and to listen actively to the views, ideas and concerns of everyone in the workplace.

We are quite simply better together. Everything we need to know to improve and develop our business is right there in our business! Effective engagement and communication are key to harnessing that potential for the good of our shared future. But we also have to recognise that big changes like these require some investment up front, in terms of money effort and leadership, if they are to be successful

As health and safety professionals we can act as advocates and facilitators. It’s our job to encourage open discussion. So many anxieties and challenges can be resolved through simple conversation, empathy and understanding, but this is also the route to spotting when someone requires some in depth assistance, and that’s where occupational health, the EAP and other support systems can be engaged swiftly to help.

Health and safety practitioners tend to be very adaptable. Our core skill set of hazard identification, risk appraisal, control design and implementation, regular review, continual improvement, communication and engagement, is incredibly flexible and transferable to most environments / situations. I think what we lack sometimes is open-mindedness and the ability to take on board opposing views, but in these unique times nobody has all the answers. We are only as good as the sum of our collective knowledge and ideas, so I think we should focus our own development around those non-technical skills, and a heightened sense of self awareness, so that we are equipped to operate in new ways going forwards.

The profession has had some bad press in the past, but if ever there was a situation where we can demonstrate our value in supporting innovation it has to be now! So, we must take advantage of this to dispel some of the inaccurate and unhelpful views of the past, and raise the profile of the amazing opportunities presented by a career in health and safety.

We can’t do anything to mitigate the tragedy of so very many people losing their lives prematurely, or the devastating impact that this has had on their loved ones and communities. But I do think that we can honour their memory by seeking to restart our workplaces, communities and lives which a new focus on people, a new balance and a focus on caring, that will allow us to move forward in a more positive way.

Louise Ward is the health, safety and environment director at Siemens. For more information visit, www.siemens.com/mobility